In these times marked by seemingly endless war, organized selfishness, systematic irresponsibility, entrenched indifference, incessant distraction, and increasing social alienation and isolation, Jim Forest gives all who yearn for peace a much needed “word” from the Cistercian monk, Thomas Merton. Jim’s echoing of Merton’s advice to peacemakers not only shows us with purgatorial truthfulness who we have become and who we are in danger of becoming, it prophetically names the problems and dangers that beset us in this present age and marks war as our common enemy. Rather than leaving us frozen in despair, this text casts out the fear that it names and asks us to answer God’s call to radical spiritual purification and a total conversion of heart. This wise and hopeful book calls each of us to undertake the apostolic work of patiently pursuing, praying, and sacrificing for peace by directing us to live in communion with the Truth — the perfect love who is our peace — Jesus Christ.
— Shawn T. Storer, Director, Catholic Peace Fellowship

For more on the book please visit Jim’s site:


Jonah in the Belly of a Paradox


  1. Jim Forest notes that “concern for peace runs like a red thread connecting [Merton’s] very earliest writing and his later work” (2).Choose one example of concern for peace described in this chapter, and meditate on it more closely. What in this episode calls out to you? What do you find evocative, or challenging, or attractive in Merton’s response to war?
  2. Encounters with war shaped Merton’s history immensely – from his parents’ emigration during World War I, to his brother’s death in World War II. Reflect on your own family’s history. How has it been shaped or disfigured by war? What imprints or scars has war left on your family?
  3. Saint Francis illuminated the connection between possessions and war (7). Discuss how voluntary poverty can be integral to peacemaking. Express your comfort or discomfort with Forest’s insight. What are the ways that consumerism, disposability, and energy use (pollution) relate to war?


  1. Discuss our human nature in light of these two significant passages from Thomas Merton’s writings. What theological anthropology is presented in them?


Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God and yet hating Him; born to love Him, living instead in fear and hopeless self-contradictory hungers. Not many hundreds of miles away from the house where I was born, they were picking up the men who rotted in rainy ditches among the dead horses . . .” (Forest 2) The Seven Story Mountain


“If only we could see each other [as we really are] all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. . . .I suppose the big problem is that we would fall down and worship each other. . . . [T]he gate of heaven is everywhere.”(Forest 17) Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander



A Book in a Bus Terminal

  1. The Catholic Worker’s main form of peace witness at the time of Jim Forest’s joining the New York City Catholic Worker was resisting NYC’s civil defense drills:

Dorothy saw such drills (conducted between 1955 and 1961) as a dress rehearsal for nuclear war with the Soviet Union. For her, civil defense was, really, a cruel joke, as subways and basements offered protection only from conventional weapons, but the ritual had the effect of making nuclear war seem survivable and even winnable. Dorothy had chosen instead to sit on a park bench in front of New York’s City Hall


What secular rituals habituate us to the prospect of war or of ‘civil defense’?
Who benefits from these rituals? How can these practices be resisted?


  1. Personal relationships launched Forest’s life work of peacemaking. As he stated, Dorothy Day “was as interested in me as I was in her”; furthermore, she generously shared with him her own friendship with Thomas Merton. How have you experienced guidance from someone in the Church? What is the role of community in peacemaking?


  1. A small poster tacked to my apartment wall bore a four-word message: ‘Get ready to die.’ In 1961, when even monasteries were building fallout shelters, each time I heard New York’s sirens being tested I expected to be shredded into radioactive particles. The sirens would begin their coordinated howling, the blasts punctuated by silences so severe the city suddenly seemed desert-like in stillness. Stunned, momentarily paralyzed by the significance of the noise, I would stop whatever I was doing in the Catholic Worker’s third-floor office and wait at the front window, gathering a final view of our battered neighborhood with its few scarred trees struggling for light and air—even here, a kind of beauty. […]We were Christians who had done our best to take Jesus at his plain words in our awkward Catholic Worker way. We believed in the resurrection and hoped in God’s mercy. […] But each time the sirens ceased their doomsday howls. There was no sudden radiance brighter than a thousand suns. At such times I felt like an airline passenger setting shaking feet upon solid ground after a no-wheels landing in emergency foam spread out across the runway. Our lives had ended and been given back.[25-26]

What are the ways that the threat of violence forces us to examine our mortality? How do we continue to hope in the face of death, terrorism, and permanent war?


Meeting Merton

  1. Merton reminds us: “As Augustine would say, the weapon with which we would attempt to destroy the enemy would pass through our own hearts to reach him [48].” What are ways that that deploy the weapons of violence unknowingly, even when we’re seeking the good?
  2. Forest’s description of Merton and his time at Gethsemane reveal a certain “earthiness” about the monk and his monastery ; for instance, Merton’s laughter at smelly Catholic Worker feet, the thick woolen hood he threw over Forest, his speech like a stevedore, and his rapidfire typing [42].How does contemplation root us more deeply in creation? How does violence alienate us from creation?
  3. Warm hospitality characterizes Merton’s welcome of Forest and Bob Kaye. How does hospitality characterize God’s activity toward human beings? What kinds of hospitality are we invited to as followers of Jesus?

Merton’s Collision with Censors

  1. [Submitting to censors] is all I can offer to compare with what you people [at the Catholic Worker] are doing to share the lot of the poor. A poor man is one who has to sit and wait and wait and wait, in clinics, in offices, in places where you sign papers, in police stations, etc. And he has nothing to say about it. At least there is an element of poverty for me too.

What are ways that radical individualism can take us out of solidarity with those who cannot exercise free agency? How can individualism become violent?



  1. Now you will ask me: how do I reconcile obedience, true obedience (which is synonymous with love) with a situation like this? Shouldn’t I just blast the whole thing wide open, or walk out, or tell them to jump in the lake? Let us suppose for the sake of argument that this was not completely excluded. Why would I do this? For the sake of the witness for peace? For the sake of witnessing to the truth of the Church, in its reality, as against this figment of the imagination? Simply for the sake of blasting off and getting rid of the tensions and frustrations in my own spirit, and feeling honest about it? In my own particular case, every one of these would backfire and be fruitless.
    What were Merton’s reason for being obedient? How does Merton characterize obedience and talk about it? To whom are peacemakers obedient  within the Church? How do we balance obedience and prophetic witness? How can we build a culture of peaceful dialogue within the Church – without heavy handedness, arrogance, or pride from any party?


  1. Merton says that eradicating the difference between civilian and combatant – the killing of innocents in order to “break enemy morale” – is “pure terrorism” [53]. We have a new valence to the word “terrorism” since the time that Merton wrote. What is the connection between the tactics of radical Islamic terrorism and the terror-inducing motive behind the Allied obliteration bombing of Dresden and Tokyo?


Peace in the Post-Christian Era


  1. Meditate and comment on the following insight from Merton: “Love of enemies . . . [is] an expression of eschatological faith in the realization of the messianic promises and hence a witness to an entirely new dimension in man’s life. . . . The Christian is and must be by his very adoption as a son of God, in Christ, a peacemaker (Matt 5:9). He is bound to imitate the Savior who, instead of defending Himself with twelve legions of angels (Matt 26:55), allowed Himself to be nailed to the Cross and died praying for his executioners. . . . The Christian does not need to fight and indeed it is better that he should not fight, for insofar as he imitates his Lord and Master, he proclaims that the Messianic kingdom has come and bears witness to the presence of the Kyrios Pantocrator [Lord of Creation] in mystery even in the midst of the conflicts and turmoil of the world.”(63)


  1. (pg. 67) Merton urges us not to build our ethics upon the lowest level of what is morally permissible. He uses the haunting example of killing a child in the roadway in order to evade your own capture, which some moral theologians argued to be permissible. What moral discourses in our world today extol the lowest level of moral permissibility? What does Christianity offer as the foundation for moral discourse?


  1. Self examination. Do we see enemies as evil and ourselves as “decent, harmless and easygoing people who only ask to be left alone to make money and have a good time” [71]? If so, in what ways is Merton challenging us?



Cold War Letters


  1. “We have to have deep, patient compassion for the fears of [humans], for the fears and irrational mania of those who hate or condemn us” [84]. How can we express this patience?
  2. We must go about nonviolence without subtle contempt for enemies. Rather than differentiating ourselves from our enemy, we must “see ourselves as similarly accused along with him, condemned to death along with him, sinking into the abyss with him, and needing, with him, the ineffable gift of grace and mercy to be saved” [86].

What spiritual practices will help to cultivate this awareness? How can the sacrament of reconciliation bring us to Merton’s insight?



Pacem in Terris


  1. If, as Pope John XXIII write in Pacem in Terris, war is no longer “a fit instrument with which to repair the violation of justice,” what are the instruments that the Church uses to heal injustice?


  1. “[Merton] had always regarded his conversion to Christ ‘as a radical liberation from the delusions and obsessions of modern man and his society.’” [94]

Name the obsessions and delusions of our time. How can they lead us to kill?


  1. Hence a regime which governs solely or mainly by means of threats and intimidation or promises of reward, provides men with no effective incentive to work for the common good. Authority is before all else a moral force. For this reason the appeal of rulers should be to the individual conscience, to the duty which every man has of voluntarily

contributing to the common good.

How do we negotiate the priorities of the individual conscience and the common good?



Building a Catholic Peace Movement


One of the most important things is to keep cutting deliberately through political lines and barriers and emphasizing the fact that these are largely fabrications and that there is another dimension, a genuine reality, totally opposed to the fiction of politics: the human dimension… which politics pretends to arrogate entirely [to itself]. . . .This is the necessary first step along the long way . . . of purifying, humanizing and somehow illuminating politics themselves. Is this possible? . . . At least we must try. . . . Hence the desirability of manifestly non-political witness, non-aligned, non-labeled, fighting for the reality of man and his rights and needs . . . against all alignments. Merton refers to an authentically human politics, one that is not bound to a nation-state, but to the human race. [103]

 What could political expression like the Everyman action look like in the context of the 21st century? Through immediate action, what can a parish, a school, your family, do?

  1. “[What is needed is] a more solid foundation, and deeper roots, spiritual roots. I know you have them already, but an immense amount of work needs to be done by us all. […] As long

as these deep foundations are not there, I think you can very well be used or misused by political elements that have nothing to do with you. . . . [103-104] What is the importance in rooting yourself in a tradition, a community, a place, when building these spiritual roots? What could these roots look like for you?


Founding CPF


  1. Given what you’ve read in the book, what strikes you about what marked their efforts of the early Catholic Peace Fellowship?


  1. The Catholic Peace Fellowship continues to counsel conscientious objectors to war (now, often military persons who struggle with the contradiction between their participation in war and their consciences); to bring Church teaching to bear on issues of war in peace; to provide counseling, spiritual direction, and guidance to military, former military, and their families. Have you ever considered this work? Have you ever found yourself in need of these resources? What’s the next small step you can take to connect with that type of witness?


The Spiritual Roots of Protest


  1. Peacemaking begins with seeing, seeing what is really going on around us, seeing ourselves in relation to the world we are part of, seeing our lives in the light of the kingdom of God, seeing those who suffer, and seeing the image of God not only in friends but in enemies. What we see and what we fail to see defines who we are and how we live our lives.

Domine ut videam – “Lord, that I may see.” Bring this to prayer.

  1. Merton used another Latin phrase during the 1964 peacemaking retreat at Gesthemane: Quo warranto? (Meaning, “by what right”?)

By what right do we protest and resist?


  1. Some have observed that if all Catholics had resisted the Second World War as did Blessed Franz Jagerstatter, the total war that engulfed Western Europe could never have reached the magnitude that it did. “Ifthe Church,” said Merton, “could make its teachings alive to the laity, future Franz Jägerstätters would no longer give their witness in solitude” [119]. How could the Church make its teaching alive, such that a ‘mighty army of conscientious objectors’ would arise?


Burning Draft Cards


  1. “The grave crime, we are told, is not the destruction of life but the destruction of a piece of paper.” – Tom Cornell, co-founder of the Catholic Peace Fellowship

Discuss the Biblical theme of idolatry, which is invoked by Dorothy Day and Tom Cornell in the burning of draft cards. What national ideas or symbols are reverenced or seen as ‘holy’ amongst Americans? How does this produce war?


  1. Revisit Forest’s correspondence with Merton on page 133, in which Forest provides Merton a list of the mail on his desk. Jim Forest provided this list to Merton to show him the relational fruit of CPF, the way it was filling a hunger within the Church. What hunger in the Church do we see around us today? What hunger do I have?


Quiet Voice at the Vatican Council


  1. “What matters is for the bishops and the Council to bear witness clearly and without confusion to the Church’s belief in the power of love to save and transform not only individuals but society. Do we believe or do we not that love has this power?” [145]
    Let’s take Merton’s question for ourselves: do we believe that society can be transformed by the love of Christians? Do I believe that God is an actor in history? What does this mean? How will that make my life look different?


  1. Merton characterizes the work of the Catholic Peace Fellowship as apostolic, in the sense of sharing a message (the good news of Christ). Catholics who believe that a war is unjust but who are not pacifist need only the Church’s teachings (especially those articulated in response to the modern world during Vatican II) in order to oppose the war; this position needs no descriptor other than Catholic.
    Do you think the Church’s teaching on just and unjust wars is taken seriously? Does the Church have any process for helping its members out of war if a war is deemed to be unjust? What would the Church do if a war were clearly unjust: should it ask that all of its Catholic members leave the military?



Saying No to War, Loving our Enemies.


  1. Who are the enemies that we ourselves are called to love?
  2. Merton points out that there are two major reasons we don’t love our enemies: attachment to property, and assaults against our identity and allegiances. How should a Christian relate to property? How should Christians respond to assaults against identity and allegiance? How did Christ and the saints relate to property and assaults?


Face to Face with Vietnam



  1. “Do not avoid suffering or close your eyes before suffering. Do not lose awareness of the existence of suffering in the life of the world. Find ways to be with those who are suffering, including personal contact, visits, images and sounds. By such means, awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world.” – Thich Nhat Hanh [160]


Explain the role of compassion in the life of a Christian. Do I allow my life to be interrupted by the sufferings of people around me? Do I have compassion for the poor and afflicted who are often called ‘undeserving’?


  1. In this chapter, the suffering of the Vietnamese during America’s war in their country is brought to light. Read these accounts in the spirit of Thich Nhat Hanh’s injunction above.




Blessed Are the Meek


  1. “The chief difference between violence and nonviolence is that the latter depends entirely on its own calculations. The former depends entirely on God and His word.” [174] How does Christian nonviolence transcend and perfect reasoning about the justice of war?


  1. Merton elucidates the dangers of a sort of pseudo-nonviolence, “practiced by the weak,” which is “a different method of expressing one’s will to power.” True nonviolence “is not for power but for truth.” [175] Reflect, write, and discuss. What does it mean that every human being is subject to the truth?


Joy and Grief


  1. Merton’s Christmas letter on page 183 about the incomprehensibility of the human heart and the need for patience is deep wisdom for our society, obsessed with psychology. We often lack the awareness that there may be things within us that we cannot understand.

What does it mean that every human person is a mystery; that is, irreducible to scrutiny and control? How should this fact fill us with awe in front of the other and toward ourselves?


  1. Page 185 article by I.F. Stone.

Everything America stands for is at stake [in Vietnam]. And not just America, but everything the modern world admires. And not just the capitalist world, but all that Lenin and his comrades aspired to. . . . It is the Machine. It is the prestige of the machine that is at stake in Vietnam. It is Boeing and General Electric and Goodyear and General Dynamics. It is the electronic rangefinder and the amphibious truck and the nightpiercing radar. It is the defoliant, and the herbicide, and the deodorant.. . . It is the ideal of our young men . . . to be an Ivy-League executivein one of those chrome and glass skyscrapers which are our cathedrals. It is to be a human particle as shiny and antiseptic and replaceable as any machine part, in the world of business. This is more than a drive for money. It is the veneration of efficiency. It is faith in technology. . . .


How does this description strike you?
How do “veneration of efficiency” and “faith in technology” manifest themselves today? How can we resist them?



Letter to a Young Activist

  1. “In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.” This sentence, written by Merton and read, reread, and memorized by Jim Forest, could be called the core of the Catholic Peace Fellowship’s apostolic work with military and veterans who are struggling with the contradiction between their personal participation in war and their consciences.

Bring Merton’s insight to prayer. What calls out to you?

How can you recognize the primacy of relationships in your work?

  1. How are we tempted to a ‘veneration of efficiency’ that causes us to lose sight of the power and value of the personal?


A Square in a Patchwork Quilt


  1. At the Abbey of Gethsemane, Merton’s listening puts him in contact with both the rain (“selling nothing, judging nobody, drenching the thick mulch of dead leaves, soaking the trees”) and the guns of Fort Knox. [205] Exercise listening in your home, place of work, or as you move about your community. What do you hear? Listen for sounds mechanized, natural, and human, with the ear of a contemplative. Write about the sounds in the form of verse or narrative prose. What is the truth of what you experience?



  1. One who is not “alone” . . . has not discovered his identity. He seems to be alone, perhaps, for he experiences himself as “individual.” But because he is willingly enclosed and limited by the laws and illusions of collective existence, he has no more identity than an unborn child in the womb. He is not yet conscious. He is alien to his own truth. He has senses, but he cannot use them. He has life, but not identity. To have an identity, he has to be awake, and aware. But to be awake, he has to accept vulnerability and death. [207]


Merton observes that those who don’t encounter themselves in prayerful solitude don’t know themselves. He connects solitude to awareness of one’s mortality. What are ways we hide from vulnerability and death? How do we use violence for this?

How does awareness that we will die prepare us for peacemaking?


  1. Now if we take our vulnerable shell to be our true identity, if we think our mask is our true face, we will protect it with fabrications even at the cost of violating our own truth. This seems to be the collective endeavor of society: the more busily men dedicate themselves to it, the more certainly it becomes a collective illusion, until in the end we have the enormous, obsessive, uncontrollable dynamic of fabrications designed to protect mere fictitious identities—“selves,”that is to say, regarded as objects.[207]

Describe collective illusions in our contemporary society. Do you see connections between these illusions and warmaking?


The Root of Sin is Fear


  1. Forest ends the book by calling our attention to something fundamental within us, a dynamic that is a part of our own hearts and part of the origin of war. Bring the question to prayer – where, and in what ways, might fear touch my life? What paths to freedom from fear is Jesus offering?
  2. In what ways are you being called, in Merton’s words, to “risk the sharing of [your own contemplative] solitude with the lonely other who seeks God through you and with you”? How does this relate to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy?
  3. After spending time with the words of Forest and Merton in this book, consider: how might the Lord be speaking to you through these words? What invitations are present here, and to which invitations are you being called to respond?